FATHERLESS BOYS: A Single-Mom Watches Her Teenage Son Struggle with Impending Manhood
By Vanessa Werts
Across America, in the inner-city and in suburbia, fathers are silently disappearing from their sons’ lives. Over the last decade, fatherlessness has emerged as one of the most consequential trends facing society. What was long thought to be primarily an African-American problem, stemming from poverty and poor education, has become an issue that crosses both racial and class lines.
Fatherless boys are crying out for affirmation, attention, and the unconditional love of their absent fathers. Too often they flounder about life with no real sense of self and a wounded heart. Unfortunately, for society and for many boys without fathers, feelings of awkwardness, confusion, and hurt play out in staggering statistics of violence, crime, and imprisonment.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), a non profit organization established to combat father absence and promote responsible fatherhood, violent criminals are overwhelmingly males who grew up without fathers, including 72 percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates.¹
Nonetheless, not all boys without fathers display deviant behavior. Some internalize the weight of their emotions and silently struggle with who they are and what they will become. Much like my 16-year-old son, Marcus, who besides a few undesirable grades, gives the impression of being well adjusted.
Although we have our parent-teen challenges, Marcus is mostly reserved and predictable. I can always count on him to have a fervent opinion, even when he’s wrong. Yet he’s timid and uncertain in social settings. Teachers often compliment his respectful demeanor saying how pleasant it is to have him in their class. One time a friend of mine referred to him as the “gentle giant,” comparing his kind spirit to his tall stature. Considering everything I know about my son, nothing could have prepared me for his reaction to a disagreement between us or his eventual melt-down.
That Saturday morning started out as many of our weekends do. I went out for an early morning walk and returned to the sound of video games and cartoons blasting from the televisions. As I walked across the living room floor, I noticed there were potato chips lying in the carpet next to the sofa. When I questioned Marcus and his younger brother, Deon, neither of them admitted to being responsible. So I gave them an ultimatum to tell the truth or deal with the consequences. This sparked a bit of defiance in Marcus. From there, a difference of opinion escalated to his breaking point.
Frustrated with me, Marcus slammed his hand against the bathroom wall. The sound and the eruption of emotions that followed confirmed that his reaction was about something much deeper than our confrontation. Finding release, Marcus sobbed well over an hour. Pain and sadness were etched in his face as warm tears trickled over his cheeks. Each time I asked what was wrong, he cried louder – harder. “I’m tired of everything and everybody,” he finally exclaimed between gasps. “It’s all my dad’s fault. I just don’t think he appreciates me.”
Memories of my own fatherless childhood washed over me as I consoled and wept for my son that day and for the millions of fatherless boys who want more than anything to have a father who cares.
After my ex-husband and I divorced twelve years ago, his relationship with Marcus settled into a pattern of random calls and sporadic visits. Though rough at first, Marcus eventually adjusted to the new arrangement, expecting me to be there to tuck him in bed at night, and for dad to call and make arrangements to pick him up for a trip to ToysRUs. Back then, their relationship was amicable.
Now, with puberty and an awakened consciousness as factors, careless fathering has become a futile distraction in Marcus’s mind. Broken promises and inconsistent communication caused a wedge in his relationship with his father. “At 12-years-old, I was on the fence about him,” says Marcus. “I began to loose faith in him when I was in 6th grade.” By the time he turned 14; Marcus claimed not to care whether he saw or heard from his father at all.
Sadly, Marcus thinks he doesn’t need his father or guidance from any man. His belief: “I will become a man based on my own experience and instincts. And I’ll use what I’ve learned from my mom and other adults – mainly family - who have given me advice or life lessons.”
When fatherless boys quit expecting and stop hoping, something terrible happens to them, and to society. “The absence of a father can shatter a child’s world,” President George Bush said at the Forth National Summit on Fatherhood in 2001. “We know that children who grow up with absent fathers can suffer lasting damage.” President Bush went on to say, “Nearly every man who has a child wants to be a good father, I truly believe that. It’s a natural longing of the human heart to care for and cherish your child. But this longing must find concrete expression.”²
Undeniable facts: there were 12.9 million one-parent families in 2006 – 10.4 million were single-mother families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Families and Living Arrangements: 2006. “Court and school officials report that many children do not even know what to put in the ‘Father’s Name’ blank on printed forms,” David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, wrote in his 1995 book Fatherless America.³
Supporters of responsible fatherhood initiatives are as varied as the reasons for father-absence. From pro-fatherhood groups to public officials to the federal government, they all weigh in on how to address fatherlessness. Expectedly, opinions differ on the reasons why fathers abandon their children and the methods used to address the problem. Nevertheless, the resounding truth we all agree on is: children need their dads.
Federal funding and grants are available for programs designed to strengthen fatherhood. Like the NFI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services joined the fatherhood movement last year and launched a national initiative, the 2006 Promoting National Fatherhood Initiative. The program is currently on-going and enables fathers to improve relationships and reconnect with their children.
It’s widely believed that manhood must be learned, that it’s not a birth right. I agree. Yet for Marcus, past experiences with men have been synonymous with disappointment and rejection. Promises are continually broken by his father, and calls are infrequent at best. On the occasion his father does call, Marcus makes excuses not to spend time with him. I used to make him go with his dad. Not any more. Disturbing as it is to think, considering his attitude towards his father, I often wonder if it’s too late to reach him.
“It’s never too late!” says Marvin Dickerson, President of the Greater Washington DC Chapter of 100 Black Men, a non profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for African-American youth, particularly males. “I think it’s harder as time goes on because their options diminish. Methods have to change with the age range.”
Because Dickerson’s father passed away when he was only 10-years-old, he knows all too well what its like to grow up without a father. Remembering life after his father’s death, Dickerson says, “I had a lot of positive people around me who thought I was special and went out of their way to take care of me.” Even so, he admits that his fondest memory is of his dad coming to see him play in a youth All-Star Baseball game. Coming off the field after making a major play, Dickerson recalls looking into the stands at his father. He says the proud that’s-my-boy smirk on his father’s face was priceless. “It was the best feeling.”
Recently, I registered Marcus for a group-based mentoring program operated by 100 Black Men of Greater Washington DC, Inc. The program inspires youth to identify personal dreams or goals and build action plans toward achieving them. “The realization of seeing them when they start to dream,” says Dickerson, “when they start thinking about the future, I know it’s worth it.” There is no substitute for dad. However, mentoring programs give fatherless boys and their families a ray of hope.
Through mentorship, I hope Marcus will begin to value his life regardless of feeling unappreciated by his father. And that he will discover his personal greatness. But mostly, I hope being mentored by committed caring men will help fill the void created by his father’s absence.
Riding along in the car one afternoon Deon said, “Mom, I’m a happy soul.” He flashed his signature smile. Imagine that. Astonished, I turned to look at him and asked what he meant. Pondering his answer, he finally said he was just happy. At 8-years-old the soul knows when it is nurtured and loved completely. Marcus once felt that way. Before maturity and the realities of life began to whisper that life is about choices and sometimes you’re not the chosen one.
What will become of America’s fatherless boys? What price will society ultimately pay if this trend continues? The clock is ticking.